Best Practices for Creating Domain-Specific AI Models

Here are some best practices and techniques for domain-specific model adaptation that worked for us time and again.

Best Practices for Creating Domain-Specific AI Models
Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash


Large-scale general AI implementations serve as great building blocks for solving certain B2B problems, and most organizations have already or are in the process of leveraging them. However, the desire for immediate RoI, creating fail-fast prototypes, and delivering decision-centric outcomes are driving the need for domain-specific AI initiatives.

Use cases and subject matter expertise help, but data scientists and analysts need to adapt the AI implementation cycle to resolve problems that require more specificity and relevancy. The biggest hurdle anyone would encounter while building such AI models is finding quality, domain-specific data. Here are some best practices and techniques for domain-specific model adaptation that worked for us time and again.


Data Matters, But Does It?


Begin by mining your organization to discover as many relevant domain-specific data assets as you can. If it is a problem relating directly to your business and industry, you likely have untapped data assets that your implementation can leverage. In the unlikely event of finding yourself with insufficient data assets, all hope is not lost. There are multiple strategies and methodologies to help create or enhance specific datasets, including active learning, transfer learning, self-training to improve pre-training, and data augmentation. Some are detailed below.


Active Learning


Active learning is a type of semi-supervised learning with a Query Strategy for selecting specific instances that it wants to learn from. Using domain experts with a human-in-the-loop mechanism for labeling such selected instances helps refine the process towards meaningful outcomes in a much faster timeline. In addition, active learning requires smaller amounts of labeled data, thus lowering manual annotation costs while still achieving higher levels of accuracy.

Here are some tips to help achieve active learning with limited data:

  • First, split your dataset into seed and unlabeled data.
  • Label the seed and use it to train the learner model.
  • Based on the query function, select from unannotated data the instance(s) for human annotation (the most critical step). The query strategy could be based on uncertainty sampling (e.g., least confidence, margin sampling, or entropy), query-by-committee (e.g., vote entropy, average Kullback-Leibler divergence), etc.
  • Add newly annotated data into the seed dataset and re-train the learner model.
  • Repeat the previous two steps until reaching stopping criteria, e.g., number of instances queried, number of iterations, or performance improvement.


Transfer Learning


This method leverages knowledge from the source domain to learn new knowledge on the target domain. The concept has been around for some time, but in the past few years, when people talk about Transfer Learning, they talk about a neural network, possibly because of the successful implementation cases there.

Using ImageNet as an example, here are some lessons learned:

  • Use a pre-trained network as a feature extractor. Determining which layer to export features depends on how similar to or different your data is from the base training dataset. The difference will determine your strategy, as outlined in the following points.
  • If the domain is different, only use lower-level features of the neural network. The features can be exported and serve as the input for your classifier.
  • If the domain is similar, remove the last layer of the neural network, and use the remaining full network as a feature extractor. Or replace the last layer with a new layer that matches the number of target dataset classes.
  • Try unfreezing the last few layers of the base network and conduct fine-tuning at a low learning rate (e.g., 1e-5). The closer the target and source domains are, the smaller the number of layers that need fine-tuning.


Self-Training to Improve Pre-Training (Jingfei Du et al., 2020)


This combination offers a potential method to make the most out of limited labeled data from downstream tasks. It can also help make the best use of the large volume of easily available unlabeled data. Here is how it works.

  • Fine-tune a pre-trained model (e.g., RoBERTa-Large) with a targeted downstream task’s labeled data and use the fine-tuned model as the teacher.
  • Extract from unlabeled dataset task-specific data using query embeddings and select nearest neighbors from the dataset.
  • Use the teacher model to annotate in-domain data retrieved in bullet 2 and select top k samples from each class with the highest score.
  • Use the pseudo data generated in Step 3 to fine-tune a new RoBERTa-Large and provide the student model.


Data Augmentation


Data augmentation includes a set of low-cost, effective techniques to generate new data points from existing data. Bullet 2 in the previous section on self-training also deals with data augmentation, which is crucial for the whole exercise.

Other techniques for NLP applications include back translation, synonym replacement, random insertion/swap/deletion, etc. For computer vision, the main methods include cropping, flipping, zooming, rotation, noise injection, changing brightness/contrast/saturation, and GAN (generative adversarial network).

Determining which methodology to use depends on your use case, initial dataset quality, SME in place, and investment available.


5 Additional Tips to Help Domain-Specific AI Refinement


You will find the need to continue refining your domain-specific AI. Here are some lessons we learned from our experiences customizing implementations to meet specific use-cases.

  1. Conduct proper data exploration to check quality and quantity issues with data before starting your proof of concept (POC). Understand whether data complies with actual application scenarios (e.g., the downstream tasks, like NER, Relation Extraction, QA, etc.), its variations and distribution, and its level of accuracy. For variations and distribution with the classification problem – the structure of the taxonomy, the number of classes at each level, amount of data falling under each class, balanced vs. unbalanced, etc. – all of it matters. What you find will impact your data handling approach and your methodology selection to improve domain-specific model performance.
  2. Choose appropriate algorithms/models based on your use case and data characteristics. Consider factors like speed, accuracy, and deployment as well. The balance of these factors is important, as they decide if your development may stop at the POC stage or have the potential for real application and productization.

    For example, if your model will eventually be deployed at the edge, large models – although they may have higher prediction accuracy – should not be chosen. It is not realistic for edge devices to run such models, given their computational power.

    Start every development/domain adaptation with a strong baseline model. Consider AutoML to quickly check algorithms’ fits for domain-specific datasets, then optimize based on the observations.

  1. Pre-processing data is an essential part of any NLP project. The steps taken should be determined on a case-by-case basis due to domain-specific requirements, and their chosen featurization methods and models. Generic pipelines may not give the best results.

    For example, some steps such as removing stop words/punctuation and lemmatizing may not always be necessary for deep learning models. They might cause a loss of context; however, they can be useful if you are using TF-IDF and machine learning models. Modularize the pipeline so that some common steps can be reused while customizing to meet use case needs.

  1. Leverage open-source domain-specific pre-trained language models if they are available. Some well-known models are SciBERT, BioBERT, ClinicalBERT, PatentBERT, and FinBERT. These domain-specific pre-trained models can help achieve better representation and contextualized embeddings for downstream tasks. In case these models are not available for your domain, but you do have sufficient computational resources, consider training your own pre-trained model using in-domain high-quality unannotated data.
  2. Consider incorporating domain-specific vocabulary and rules. For certain scenarios, they provide more efficient and accurate results and avoid model iteration problems. Creating such vocabulary and defining the rules may require considerable effort and domain expertise, which need to be balanced.




Channeling AI to meet domain-specific needs and challenges requires discipline throughout, not only in approach and resources. The good news is that companies are increasingly interested in solutions that address specific challenges and resolve them, which in turn creates best practices for data scientists and AI developers looking to provide faster ROI for their applications.

Cathy Feng leads Evalueserve’s AI practice, guiding the company into the next era of data analytics. Passionate about educating people on the possibilities of AI and its business applications, her efforts led to creating domain-specific AI applications for companies like McDonald’s, Intel, and Syngenta.